He has made some of the greatest dancers move to his groove, and has also made some not-so-great dancers look like they have been studying all their lives. You have seen his work on stage, in over 300 music videos, and on the Silver Screen. Longinus Fernandes is one of Bollywood’s best choreographers, and has also made his mark on the world stage. His recent triumphs include Saawariya, ‘Paapu Can’t Dance’ from Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na, and the choreography for the Oscar-winning song ‘Jai Ho’ in another Oscar-winner, Slumdog Millionaire. His work will be seen in the upcoming release Let’s Dance, and he has a lot more in store for us. I had the incredible opportunity to speak with him on the phone, and our conversation ranged from song and dance to style and moves, the madness of ‘Pappu Can’t Dance’, ‘Jai Ho’, and much more. I had a ball speaking to him and I know you will enjoy reading his take on all things naach!
His Journey To Fame – First Shows and Videos
How did you get into film choreography?
I have been in this world for the last 20 years. When I began dancing, it was 1985, and it was way back in 1989 when I got into choreography. That is how the journey began. In 1989 I began doing a couple of shows for Indian pop stars like Sharan Diwarkar and Parvati Khan, Sunita Rao and so on and so forth. That was stage choreography for shows, dance shows and corporate shows on that level. After that I began my journey into music videos – where we had to do choreography for music videos. I did my first vid that I did a solo dance for Shweta Shetty in a song called ‘Johnny Johnny Joker’. From there the journey actually started moving ahead, when one video became two, and two became 22, and 22 became 202 and as of now I have done over 300 music videos as a choreographer.
After that, in 1993, I got my first film break in a movie called Dil Ka Doctor. Dil Ka Doctor happens to be my very dear friend’s film, and his name is Avtar Bhogal. He actually had given me all the confidence to go up there and choreograph the entire dance sequence in the hospital. Then after that nothing really worked out for me. Sadly, in 1995 I lost my father, who I was very close to, but then this lady named Farah Khan came into my life by putting me on with her and a new journey began. She told me, I know that you are into choreography, but you have to steep for some time, so I worked for her for 16 months. And after that 16 months, she gave me my first break, down in South Indian films. It was for a very big star called Nagarjuna, alongside Tabu, and the name of the movie was Jab Dil Kisi Pe Aata Hai. It is actually called Ninne Pelladutha in Telegu. Then, after that, I tried moving out on my own, and life actually turned when I did Pyaar Mein Kabhi Kabhi, Bombay Boys, and Moksha, the ‘Jaan Leva’ song, and I have done Dil Vil Pyaar Vyaar. Dil Vil Pyaar Vyaar is very special film. It is very close to my heart because of the songs. The songs were all redone and they all happen to be RD Burman specials, so it was a big honor doing those songs, and I take a lot of pride in even talking about it because it is quite a visual treat when you see all the songs. I had done a song with Fardeen Khan for Khushi and I have done a lot of work with Madhur Bhandarkar for Page 3 and for Corporate. Then after that came this popular dance show, Jhalak Dikhlaja, that I partnered with Shweta Salve, and I am very thankful and grateful to her because it is because of her I could display my dancing skills to the entire nation and also worldwide. After that, Mr. Bhansali took a look at me closely and gave me a chance to work on his esteemed project called Saawariya. Then ‘Pappu Can’t Dance’ happened and then Slumdog Millionaire, and that is the history.
What is one thing that Farah Khan taught you when you worked with her?
She gave me a lot of knowledge and a lot of confidence. As a teacher I really don’t have the authority to rate anybody, but as a person and as a human being I think she is a fabulous person. She is very intelligent. All she did was encourage me, and every time she would come up with something and say, ‘This is of your type, please go and do it.’ She would also promote me. She has been very, very instrumental in my career and my success and in my life as well.
Slumdog Millionaire’s ‘Jai Ho’
So tell us about choreographing for Slumdog Millionaire. How did you get involved with the project?
There was this gentleman called Amar Butala who is a filmmaker and director. He did a movie called Kudiyo Ka Zamaana, and when he was doing that he said, ‘Please come choreograph my songs,’ but he had no money to offer me. He said, ‘I have got little or nothing to give you but trust me, dude, in time to come I will make sure that I make up for this.’ The makeup point was when he introduced me to Mr. Danny Boyle. Danny Boyle saw one of my music videos that I had done with Adnan Sami called ‘Lift Kara De Mix’. All the bandwagon of the Indian industry were present in that song and the song was a huge rage. The minute Mr. Danny Boyle saw that he said, ‘I don’t want to say anything else, but we are going to be working together. This is my film and this is the kind of ingredients that I need for my song, and my song is like a celebration with two common people from the streets, and this is how it happened.’
So how do you go from his brief that it is “two common people from the streets” to the 3000 extras in the railway station?
All he told me was, ‘You are damn good, you are fantastic, you are fabulous.’ He was very, very supportive of me and encouraging. But at the end of the day, he told me very point blankly, he said, ‘I want my artists to look good, and I want them to be eye pleasing. So you may be very, very good but it is not good enough for my film, because I want it to be as simple as possible so that they stand out.’ So I had to make it look like that and that was a task within itself. I am really glad that I could live up to his expectations and I was also very glad that he was and he is, he is because he exemplifies humanity and that is what he showed on the Oscar stage. It is very rare when you come across a human being like that. I know when my name was missed out I did feel slightly upset because I am human, but I would never voice my opinion and I did not voice my upset at all. All I did was move away. Then I was told, please tell Longinus not to feel upset I will make up in abundance and abundance like HOW! That was for the rest of the world to see.
You have been nominated for a 2009 Astaire Award for Best Film Choreographer. How does that feel?
I won that as well. I did win that.
Thank you very much Ma’am. Thank you really very much. It was on the first of June, and apparently I was in Ladakh shooting for my friend, Pammi Somal. It is a crossover film we are doing. I got the invitation and the nomination online and I told my agent in America (Aris), so this is what it is, please attend it on my behalf. Aris told me that I think you have very slim and bleak chances because you are up against films like High School Musical 3, Mamma Mia, and Center Stage 2. I said, ‘It is not a problem. I am happy that I am placed amongst the best. So it is an honour within itself. I am the only foreigner amongst all the Hollywood choreographers! So even if I am right up there I am sure I will be mentioned!’ And when I won, and when he called me the next day he said, ‘I have something small to give you, which is very big and meaningful’. I said, ‘What is that?’ He said, ‘That is your award! You Won It!’ I was really proud at that moment.
[Aris went from Atlanta to New York to accept the award on Longinus’s behalf. -ed.]
Did you do all the choreography for Saawariya, and what was your favorite thing about working on that film?
I have done the title track, which is there in the film twice, and the best part was working with Sanjay Bhansali. I personally feel he is one of the best craftsmen in the business, very lavish, very stylish, and yet a very simple human being.
Pappu Can’t Dance but Imran Can
Everyone loved ‘Paapu Can’t Dance’. What was it like working on that project?
Oh, it was a phenomenal experience. A bunch of new kids, all one better than the other. All enthusiastic. Aamir Khan entrusted his faith in me and believed in my madness. He said, ‘Just be the way you are and this is what I want my artists to do.’ I was not feeling shy at all, but my team members and my staff – they were always laughing and cracking up just to see me do that mad stuff. I always keep telling them that today you’re laughing, it is a feather in my cap because if I can get a smile on people’s face then I know I have done at least half the battle and the rest was history. When the song came out it was a huge rage.
I could have made ‘Pappu Can’t Dance’ like an out-and-out Broadway thing I could have choreographed or an out-and-out item kind of thing, but I did not want to do it, and that is where Mr. Aamir Khan came into the picture, and Mr. Abbas Tyrewala came into the picture. They said, Longinus, we want to keep it as natural and real as possible. That is how, when we had these meetings, there had to be many ideas that had to come out of the bag, and they should be always surprising. They said, ‘What are you made up of?’ So I said to them, ‘Kya I am a magician. I am rooting in the bag of tricks, so whenever you feel fed up I will root something else.’ That kept them in splits all the time. So they liked my nature more than anything else. So basically, it was that we had something in common which we could share, and that was our attitude, our mind sets, and a sense of humor. That got out in the song and that’s how the song was made. It has been a long, long time that you have seen a song like ‘Pappu Can’t Dance’, this is what I personally feel. I am sure the entire nation as well as people from the other parts of the globe realise that fact. How you take a song to a different level, but with a different group.
Is it difficult?
It is difficult to do that if you have somebody who is unable to understand and follow your instructions. But people like Imran Khan, I give him full marks for understanding what was required to be done and also at the same time be very cooperative and very supportive. You know if I would tell him, ‘Well sir, this is not actually right; try to do it like this’, and he would also put in his own inputs. See, I can elevate a person’s performance but I cannot enhance it. Enhancing is all about the person himself. That is the greatness about people like Imran Khan and Ranbir Kapoor.
Because they can take it to that next level when you show them what you want?
Yes, yes exactly.
How was it to win The Best Choreographer Award for that number at The Filmfare Awards?
The Filmfare award … I was not shocked at all, I was not surprised; I was really touched because I actually felt earlier that it was not only about choreography, but also about meaningful choreography, that takes a film forward. It is not just a one off song – it is all about taking your film forward in the right manner and the right zone. ‘Pappu Can’t Dance’ was one of those same songs, much like earlier songs in different films where the song takes the film forward. Like, you know in ‘Pehla Nasha’, it had the song in progression. ‘Ek Do Teen’ had a song in progression from were she gets kidnapped. So it’s not just about one “dhin-chak” song happening and then people slump by saying my choreography was so good, but I did not get awarded. It is all about being in place with the story in the same line. You have to make sure what is apt for your film and what can take it forward. When I learned this, I said I would try and do this at some point in my life, and I managed to do it so I am very, very happy.
Bollywood dance is all about the face and the waist
How much within Bollywood do you have to be an actor as well as a dancer, since the dance numbers progress the story?
See, that is what Bollywood dancing is all about. It is about the face and the waist! If you can move your waist and control your face and express in the right manner that is just apt for the particular shot, you have got a winner in the bag. So basically, when you see songs done by Mr. Amitabh Bachchan, you see it in his face. Whether it is ‘Khaike Pan Banaras Wala’ from Don, or whether it is ‘Dekha Na Socha Na’ from Bombay to Goa, or whether it is ‘Pyar Mein Dil Pe Maar De Goli’ from Mahaan. Whatever the fate of the film will be at the box office, that is important, but the value of that artist in that song is incredible. So you know, I also learned watching these people and I am trying to emulate those greats in my own small manner.
So that is what I feel about Bollywood dancing. It is all about timing. If your timing is immaculate you are right up there. Rishi Kapoor is one of those people who has got immaculate timing. Superb sense of rhythm! That is why when you see his songs from Karzz, obviously, or like the song ‘Khulum Khulla Pyar Kare Ge Hum Dono’, he has got that kind of charm which is actually very rare to see in any actor in today’s time. Aamir Khan has got that charm in ‘Yarron Sun Lo Zara’ from Rangeela. Shah Rukh Khan has got that charm, he has got that twinkle in the eye and he has got that dimpled smile. Otherwise, when it comes to hardcore dancing, then you have got Hrithik Roshan who is right up there. I think he is Hollywood standard. He can match up with any Justin Timberlake and so on and so forth. People like him are very rare in India. But all credit to him because he is a very hardworking guy, and he has also followed the old line that practice makes a man perfect. He struggles day in and day out to get the moves right. So that is another aspect about dancing! Then you have got our very own Govinda, who is a charmer. He just makes those funny faces, and you like watching him and you want to watch him again and again. So that is the various journeys and various genres about Bollywood style dancing.
If you were to describe Bollywood choreography to someone from the West or America, what styles would you say it encompasses?
The choreography in High School Musical is very close to Bollywood kind of choreography because I see a lot of myself in that kind of style. Hats off to that choreographer – I think he did a brilliant job. When I watched the film I felt even then I have to learn a lot. I am glad I watched and I am glad I could pick up a few things and a few bits, and I am sure I am going to put them into practice as well. I always like scene-telling choreography, for example like Singing in the Rain, that is very, very much song and dance. Where you are enacting the story and also enacting the way it has been sung. Or like Fred Astaire, he was one who could dance on air, he was so light on his feet whether you see Funny Face or like in That’s Entertainment. I think that guy had something special about him and that was his feet. He spoke with his feet more than his face.
He did, he did. You are right.
I mean he played drums with his feet and he banged them up and he has done some weird kind of things. Spectacular; very pleasing to the eye.
On Let’s Dance and Gayatri
You have worked on the soon to be released Let’s Dance. What number did you choreograph for the dance film?
I did the title song called ‘Let’s Dance’ and I have done the romantic song called ‘Tumse Iqraar’ and I have done the climax song. The climax is a dance on stage called ‘Jee Le’.
Are these all the same style?
They all are different styles. One is a romantic song and it is a visual treat and I think I have shot it brilliantly. I personally like the music and I like that song very much. ‘Let’s Dance’ is like a street jazz, so I have tried to do whatever I felt was apt at that point of time and that also takes the story forward. It is full of various styles. It has got a qawwali, it’s got some Broadway kind of feel, it’s got some samba-ish kind of feel, it’s got street contemporary feel. It is all there, it is like a blend. It is like one simple bhel puri but I have tried to put my own influence, and I am sure that difference will be made by viewers.
How was it working with Gayatri?
Gayatri is a fabulous dancer, and I got to know she is from America. She is a trained classical dancer as well. I give her full credit for really working hard and for trying to push her dancing skills to another level. I am sure it will work in her favor. Aarif, my friend, who has made this film, is a fabulous director and I am sure after the 19th of June people will realise he is a fabulous filmmaker as well. Considering all the constraints and all that was given he has done a kick-ass job!
Dance is all about expressing your feelings.
Where do you see dance in film going, how is it going to grow?
It is going to grow only bigger and bigger. Dance is something that has to no language and no bars – all it has got is expression. Dance is all about expressing your feelings. Sometimes it is anger, sometimes it is passion, sometimes it is light, sometimes it is love, sometimes it is a tender softness. That is what dance is all about and every time the music starts and you take this step forward you are actually speaking with your actions. This is what I would rate dance. So there is no stopping it. It will always be speaking, it will always be enacting something or the other. Whatever that has been said, whether it is an orator who has been orating something or a poet writing poetry, whatever has to be enacted will be done via dance. So dance is never going to stop – it is only going to grow bigger and better.
How much rehearsal time do you have before the shoot?
To be very honest sometimes it is very little, but I would always prefer the more the merrier. If you get a minimum of four or five days you can do wonders. If you get one or two days you’ve got to be extemporaneous and you have to be very, very smart on the spur of the moment to try to get something done within this kind of time. You have to be conscious of the light, conscious of the light going, the light coming. For example, when you are shooting night sequences you are always scared about the light coming up so you have to finish by four or five – that is the cut off time. If at all you have a backlog, you have to go for one more day, and one more day means giving a heart attack to another producer. Is he going to put his hand in his pocket? No, he is going to put his hand close to his chest, nowhere near the pocket. So that is where creativity gets stumped. So for all that, you really need to be an A class planner. Planning is important because I know as a child growing up nobody plans to fail, but all those who have failed are the ones have failed to plan. So I keep this considered at the back of mind at every point of time whenever when I am working. Rehearsals or no rehearsals, there should be no excuses. Whatever is seen onscreen is the ultimate answer for everyone to know!
What do you love most about your job?
The thing I love most about my job is that I am good at it and I am only trying to be better and be among the best.
Choreographer to Director?
Do you ever see yourself going from choreographer to directing a film?
You know when I choreograph songs I basically direct them. There are very few people who are basically just directors of choreography. I know for sure like Farah Khan, like Raju Khan like Ahmed Khan these are the only few people who can actually direct a song with the right maximum and in the right manner. Otherwise, choreography is just coming in and showing the steps and then coming away, but that is another story all together. My friends tell me I should direct a film because ‘you have done so many videos and you have directed them so how does it feel? Why don’t you take this one step forward by making a film?’ But I believe in allocation of jobs. I will learn the ropes and then I will surely try to manage one. My wish was to reach to the maximum level as a choreographer and I am very grateful and thankful to the Lord above that I have at least placed myself up there. For me, I have tried to maintain myself and I have to be the same person, because if I try to change then things may not work in my favor. So I would rather be the same and be only good at it. That will keep me going because this is what I like about myself, that I have to entertain and not disappoint anybody. So every point of time I am planning how to do entertain people.
To you, what makes a good dancer?
What makes a good dancer is someone who is passionate about learning. The minute you realise you have learnt it all, that means you are f-all . I can’t use the word, excuse my profanity. You have to be able to keep learning. Being a good dancer is one and being a good performer is the other. Shah Rukh Khan may not be a great dancer but I think he is a great performer. He has got that energy. You know what it takes to be up on stage to be a rock star – he has got that and that is very rare in people. I can say that because I know when I was a participant on Jhalak Dikhlaja I felt I had that, because I have always been a quintessential hero in my college days and I began dancing at a very early age from the time when ABBA, Bonnie and John Travolta were really famous and rocked the world. I grew up watching them, and so I have always got that in mind that they are performers – they are not great dancers. So if you are a great dancer and performer together like an Hrithik Roshan then you have got the cake and the bakery as well.
‘ Jai Ho’ and ‘Good Morning India’ are Favs!
What has been your favorite number out of the many you have created?
My favorite song I have choreographed and enjoyed choreographing by far is ‘Jai Ho’! The second is in a film called Khushi, which was ‘Good Morning India’. It is a must watch. Please watch the song. That is Fardeen Khan’s entry and you will know why I am saying that, because that actually changed the trend and changed the style of shooting a song when you have to show a journey from morning to evening. So I think I got that out in the industry where everybody looked up to it and praised me a lot. It helped me grow and it also helped me be a better person, because you know in that entire journey of shooting that song I know how mad I used to go because we were shooting under a lot of constraints: the subway, the boats, the road, you name it, it was chaos. At the end of the day the outcome was the fabulous result, and after I realised that I promised myself to be as cool as a cucumber when I am shooting next time.
[I of course had to go check it out, and I can say yes I do know why he said that! Brilliant choreography with a very modern edge that I loved. And shot in so many different places it must have been incredibly difficult but turned out amazing! I did not know Fardeen had those moves until I saw him in that song! -ed.]
Up Next Jail and other exciting work
What are your working on now?
I am working on this flick called Bollywood Hero. It is due to release on the 6th of August in New York. I am invited by the film company to be present out there so I am going to make the best of this trip while I am in the US. That is one, then I got a call from Kransnow Productions from Mr. Derek Che. Mr. Derek happens to be a serious director producer in LA and he has had talks with me and said we need to talk and hook up so I can put you on a musical series. I am also doing a musical documentary for Century films in UK with Brian Hill. So that is my schedule for this year. Apart from this, on the Bollywood front, I have just finished shooting for a film called Jail by Madhur Bhandarkar. Then there Aao Twist Kare by Mr. Glenn Barretto with Aftab Shivdasani and Aamna Shariff. Then there is Three Nights and Four Days with Devang Dholkia. Devang Dholkia happens to be a friend of mine and so does Glen and so does Madhur Bhandarkar. So whenever I have worked with these people I have always worked on a friendship and a family level.
It was such an honor to speak to Longinus and to have him give such in-depth answers. I really enjoyed our conversation and probably indulged my dancer side a bit and asked way too many questions. I can’t wait to see what new steps he has put together for Let’s Dance and for his upcoming films. I wish him the best of luck and hope one day to perhaps naach with him!